The Softly-Softly Preamp Shuffle Part 5–The End?

After outlining my semi-outrageous requirements for the ideal preamplifier, I’ve promptly ignored many of them and ended with a truly obscure choice

I can’t even recall how I found this specific supplier’s website. I have a feeling that I had been sniffing around the Music First Audio site and thinking that a transformer based passive preamp had to be a good idea. Simple, elegant and with a plethora of glowing reviews following them around, the MFA units looked like the bomb. They’re able to fit into more systems than a standard pot based passive because impedance matching is much less of an issue thanks to the transformers. Theoretically you get all the goodies you’d normally get from a passive (transparency and detail) with the drive and weight of an active.

The problem was that the MFA prices made my wallet and my credit cards a little queasy, so I searched for other transformer passive options, or Transformer Volume Controls (TVCs) as they’re commonly known. There’s the Promitheus from Malaysia, which has a huge following on certain forums, the Django, the Bent Audio (not strictly a TVC but close enough) among others.

Somehow I stumbled upon the StereoKnight site and thought “hang on, this looks like a bit of me, wonder what they cost?” I couldn’t help but notice that there was even a remote controlled version, which would be just right for a lazy bugger like me.

In the rack and ready to sing

Emails between me and owner James Zhang in Tennessee ensued and I decided to bring in one of his Silverstone Balance models. No remote unfortunately but I really liked the looks and the sheer simplicity of the design. Putting power into a passive pre to drive remote volume and switching seemed silly.

With no local agent, I had to go direct but at US$1,000 shipped, it seemed like it was worth a shot. James offers a 30 day satisfaction guarantee, so what the heck, money changed hands and I settled in to watch the DHL tracking system as the unit moved from Hong Kong (designed in the USA, made in the Far East) to Auckland.

Buyers remorse swiftly kicked in. Let’s see – I’d just bought an unknown brand with no headphone stage, no phono stage, no local support and no remote without hearing or seeing the unit and no idea if it would work with my eccentric power amps. Did I mention that there was NO REMOTE! Argh what had I done?

Five days later it had arrived but the DHL/Courier Post guy didn’t bother coming down the drive (I know because I was home all bleeding day waiting for him after I’d called up to ascertain the delivery date). He just dropped a note in the post box, so I went to collect it the next day (after the local Courier Post depot lost it overnight). The box looked OK eternally, so I signed for it and shot home.

Result? No not really. There was evidence of movement inside the box and there was obvious damage to one of the volume knobs. The StereoKnight factory had scrimped on the packaging, using some relatively soft foam and the amp had slid around while in transit. It was also covered in fingerprints, so may well have been opened up en route. Welcome to the wonderful world of personal imports.

Ever seen anything like this?

Long story short – the right attenuator was munted, making a lovely grinding noise instead of the click, click, click of the left attenuator. James was very good to deal with and we arranged for the unit to go back to a certain Mr. Fang in Guangdong Province, China. I packed it to resist even the worst efforts of courier, customs and assorted agencies of mischief. It got there in a few days, was quickly repaired and arrived back with me in around three more days.

This time, it was in great nick, with uprated packaging using heavy duty foam inserts. I nervously hooked it up and tentatively hit play.

When I first got the broken unit, I’d played it using the one working channel and what I heard was so good it had just about rewired my brain. This revived unit was much the same.

First, as expected from a passive preamp, it’s as quiet as a ninja church mouse wearing slippers and walking on feathers. I kid you not, the noise floor is in the sub-basement.

As far as transparency, openness and levels of detail go, this thing is in another league even compared to the excellent active Densen B-200 that I reviewed recently. It sounds like nothing at all, which is a very good thing for a preamplifier. I feel like I’m finally actually hearing all of the source, power amps and speakers. Every single instrument and all the vocals are wildly texturally detailed, more so than I’ve ever heard at home and I’ve had a bunch of good amps hooked up to this CD player and these speakers over the years. Yeah yeah, cue up the “veils being lifted” and “opened windows” cliché warnings…

There’s no leanness whatsoever to the sound, which is what I was most worried about – instead it’s full and rich, with more bass weight than I used to have from the Theophany M5s, as in way, way more. How to explain that I have no idea.

Enough inputs for me (and balanced if I go there one day)

Speed and attack was superb from the start. The overall dynamics and scale seemed a little restricted for the first few hours of use but have substantially improved over the last week or so.

James doesn’t buy into the the theory that audio gear breaks in but reports that many of his buyers indicate that the units do get better with time. The Promethius forums are laden with feedback that those TVCs need 400 hours to get to their best. After about sixty hours of use, this thing is opening up, going deeper and harder and offering an even clearer insight into the music. It’s also as musical and as involving as I could ever wish for.

I’ll go into the sound (or lack thereof) once I’ve had more time with the unit. A full review is probably in order but based on a week of use and the way it sounds right now (absolutely marvelous), this preamp isn’t going anywhere! It looks fantastic as well – a solid chunk of acrylic sandwiched between two thick aluminum sheets, this preamp weighs in at close to 10Kg, so it’s no lightweight flimsy number. I may well have found a keeper.

15 Comments

  1. Ash, that looks stunning. I’ll be very interested to see how it improves after a few hundred hours of burn-in.

  2. Awesome! That looks fantastic… very neat and tidy internally too. Look forward to more comments.

  3. Very nice, did you ever try the VTL TL-2.5 valve preamp? I’ve had my eye on that…

  4. I never got round to trying the VTL, it was on the list along with the ATC CA2 MkII but work got in the way…then came the Densen and then the StereoKnight and that’s all she wrote.

  5. Cheers Neil. Yep I saw that preview. Would like to see a full review but in my book, this thing rocks.

  6. Hello Ash. I am in Belgium, so about as antipode as it gets. Smal world! I am waiting for the 6moons review since last August. I wonder what’s the matter there. I use the Weiss DAC2 now straight into two Emotiva XPA-1 and the speakers are Jamo R909 (those are great!). I feel the digital volume control of the DAC2 at low volume is taking away some of the magic I hear on louder volumes. The SS amps have very high gain: 32 dB! I’d like an extra analogue input and a remote would be nice. I don’t want romance (other than with my wife), I want my system to be brutally honoust.
    I have two questions if you please: first, why didn’t you order the B&R? Or are you planning to? Second: me too could do without the remote if I positioned the preamp close to the listening position. This would mean using XLR interconnects of 8-10 meters to the amps. Bad idea? BTW, the Weiss DAC2 has 4 presets for the output voltage analogue levels: 5.48, 2.74, 1.78 or 1.35V (which is what I use).
    Thanks!
    Hope you folks weren’t to frightened with the recent earthquake… At least nobody got killed. Your building skills must be just fine. I am a builder myself (wood).

  7. Hi Erwin

    The reason I went with the Balance instead of the B&R is that I wanted absolute simplicity and I really liked the look of the Balance preamp, more so than the B&R. With the small price difference to move up to a B&R unit, I was tempted for sure because I like my remotes.

    James at StereoKnight describes the B&R as a compromise or trade-off for convenience. Looking at the interior layout of the two units (B&R vs. Balance), the Balance is ultra simple, where the B&R is vastly more complex, although the transformers are described by James as being identical and there are no electronics in the signal path. He doubts that anyone will hear a sonic difference but I like the idea of having no power cord, no electronics, no displays etc. I’m getting used to not using a remote, I just don’t adjust the volume as often as I used to…

    As for the long interconnects, theoretically the transformers in these amps should allow the source to drive long cables, especially using balanced cables and a DAC with adjustable output voltage. I don’t know about 10m though, maybe an email to James would get you the answer.

    No earthquake up in Auckland where I’m located thank goodness but a lot of people in Christchurch are still struggling with the after effects of the quake.

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  9. Thanks for the reply. I am really loving the look of the remoteless version. It’s one of the coolest looking audio devices bar turntables. It would be my choice too and I even got me a quote for it from James back in August. But I am in no hurry and wanted to wait for 6moons to come with the review, to make it less of a gamble to opt for it and which one of the two. I am keeping a close eye to your blog to read more about it!

  10. I guess he likes it 🙂

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  12. Hi Erwin,

    I am from Belgium to and interested in the Stereoknight Silverstone Balance.
    But no dealers in Belgium.
    Where can I have some?
    Thanks and best regards
    verheyen7@hotmail.com

  13. If there are no local dealers, then James at StereoKnight will sell directly to buyers in that country. Contact details are on his site at http://www.stereoknight.com/

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